Ragnar Kjartansson: Song, the artist’s first American solo museum exhibition, brings together a group of recent works based in performance and music. Sited throughout the museum’s public spaces, Kjartansson’s four videos and one long-duration performance (on view March 10–27, 2011) present scenarios at once strange and wondrous that recall concert films, early video art, and theater. A musician as well as artist, Kjartansson (Icelandic, b. 1976) has based his practice in performance and actions since he formed a band in his teenage years. His videos and live events may elicit pleasure, anxiety, humor, pathos, sentimentality, and skepticism—often simultaneously—in their meditations on the persona of the performer, and its complex relationship to audience, history, and our experience of culture.
Kjartansson has explored the cultural undercurrents of both his native Iceland and the uncanny poetry and social history of American blues, folk, and the 20th-century popular music they inspired. Kjartansson says, “In Iceland, there is a 1000-year history, and no proof that it existed, but there are all these stories—the poetry, the sagas. And my performance works exist mostly as stories.”
When Kjartansson’s works deal with music, they delve into history, exploiting details of visual culture and the social dynamics they represent. A voice—the artist’s or his proxy’s—weaves in and out among props and distortion. This voice—its utterances, songs, silences, and inchoate noises—connects Kjartansson’s work to Iceland’s oral tradition, idioms of American folk tradition, and the abjection and glorification inherent to both.
The temporality of the videos and performances—often live, elongated, repeated, stalled, and then repeated many times over—confuses distinctions between story, character, and artwork, and plants them in the now, always to be felt in the immediacy of the present tense.